Norfolk, Napoleon and the Decline of Trade


Many of england’s mediaeval wars were primarily ‘dynastic’ – fought to advance the power, prestige or hegemony of the king and nobles. Even the wars of the first part of the eighteenth century were more for political gain than anything else. War against Revolutionary France, then Napoleon, however, was mostly about trade and empire. Britain dominated the world’s trade at the time. Its empire, though mostly picked up thoughtlessly, was now showing its true worth as a means of gaining yet more trading opportunities. France had been left behind or excluded. Now its leaders, especially Napoleon, dreamed of seizing a goodly share of Britain’s empire for their own country.

Two elements of Napoleon’s ‘Continental System’ of trade sanctions particularly affected the economy of Norfolk. The disruption of trade in the export of fine woollen cloth crippled the weaving trade. Norwich ‘stuffs’ — luxury, highly-patterned, worsted fabrics in rich colours — were shut out of the bulk of traditional export markets in Europe and Russia. Secondly, the shift from British trade focusing on continental Europe to an Atlantic bias meant Norfolk’s location far from the main ports of Liverpool and Bristol put it at a disadvantage. Norwich had used its own wool, plus additional supplies from all over eastern England. Cotton came from India and America and landed at the western ports. At the same time, increased mechanisation, first water and then steam-powered undermined Norwich as a manufacturing centre.

The Rise of ‘King Cotton’

Cotton fabrics were lighter and cheaper that Norfolk’s fine worsteds. They could also be printed easily with complex patterns in a range of rich colours. Norwich ‘stuffs’ were woven, not printed. Demand did not fail altogether, but the city struggled to cope with the twin threats of cheaper manufacturing in the Yorkshire woollen towns and elsewhere and the trend towards the use of thin, even diaphanous, cotton calico for Regency dresses. It maintained its superiority only in the production of fabric for mourning clothes, clerical gowns and the like. The lustrous black of bombazine remained de rigour for such formal wear throughout the nineteenth century.

Norwich also developed an unlikely trade in producing shawls based on Kashmir originals. Some of these were printed and others woven, but Norwich shawls also became essential parts of any fashionable lady’s wardrobe.

Norfolk Slips into Decline

The merchants, the traders and the bankers, whose interests could be advanced or ruined by the outcome of the war, watched the outcome with close interest, nowhere more than in East Anglia. In the eighteenth century, Norfolk was seen as a hotbed of radicals, extremists and anti-establishment politics. It also has coasts judged to be suitable, if not quite ideal, for mounting a sea-borne invasion. What might happen if the enemy arrived in force and encountered a local populace primed to rise up against the government in London.

Norfolk’s massive textile industry reached its peak of importance in the 1760s. By 1793, when war with Revolutionary France became a reality, it had already lost much of its pre-eminence. That added unemployed weavers and other textile workers to the county’s rich mix of disgruntled groups. Then, even before war had broken out, the ordinary people of rural Norfolk had been struggling with poor harvests, high food prices and limited employment.

The result was the beginning of the county’s long, slow decline into losing much of its commercial and industrial power. Agriculture remained relatively buoyant, largely due to the efforts of reformers and innovators like ‘Turnip’ Townshend and Coke of Norfolk. For the rest, the textile trade moved northwards to places better suited for mechanised operations, while innovative bankers, like the Gurneys, formed the basis of the High Street banks we have today.

Was any of this due to Napoleon’s efforts to cripple “the nation of shopkeepers”? Probably very little, if any at all. Norfolk would have lost out in the coming changes that we term the Industrial Revolution whatever the French did. It was hampered by geography, not an external enemy. A largely flat county offers little potential for the use of water-powered machinery. One without coal, no attraction in the age of steam. The new factories and their machines were bound to be sited elsewhere.

Lessons From History

Even so, governments have never forgotten the potential for using trade as a weapon of war. From the submarines and commerce raiders of the First World War and The Battle of the Atlantic to today’s trade sanctions, interfering with the movement of commerce and supplies is often the first recourse in any international dispute. And if it didn’t quite originate in the eighteenth century, that was when the use of trade sanctions was first carried out on a major scale.

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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